The internet changed everything. Cheap airfares changed everything. And then, the smartphone changed everything once again.
Take those three major developments from the last 20 years and you can pretty much explain every revolution that has taken place in the world of travel. Every convenience we now enjoy, every hassle that has now disappeared, every tiny cog in the large engine of the modern travel experience: it's owed to those three big changes.
"You can imagine back when there were only two airlines, it used to be 500 bucks to fly from Melbourne to Sydney," says comedian Tim Ross, whose new stage production Motel examines the evolution of Australian travel. "But then cheap airfares allowed everyone to go overseas, and the great Australian holiday changed. Our expectations changed.
"The idea you would just get in the car and drive somewhere, that you'd find a motel in the travel guide, see how many stars it had, 'Does it have a pool dad?' That was part of the Australian way of life. But then the internet came along, cheap airfares came along, and our expectations changed."
So many of the one-time touchstones of travel, both domestic and international, have now disappeared thanks to modern technology. We don't carry travellers' cheques anymore. We don't use paper maps. We don't use post restante. Our motel breakfast isn't delivered via a funny little hatch.
Most of these advances are great news for travellers. The world has never been cheaper and easier to explore. There have never been so many gadgets and accessories designed to make our lives easy; there have never been so many resources to allow us to curate the perfect experience.
According to Tim though, we should be careful of how we use this freedom and knowledge. "The concern was once that we would bypass country towns, when the motorways went through," he says. "Now we're just bypassing Australia. And when we stop holidaying here we stop engaging with who we are.
"But I think people are starting to crave the simplicity of holidays of old. I talk to people and they spent all this money to go somewhere, and then they stopped in a cabin on the way home to break up the journey and the kids liked the cabin and the caravan park more than the apartment on the beach."
That's worth bearing in mind as you ponder what happened to all of these things we once knew so well ...
Hotel porters are gone Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK
Wheels. That's all it took for an entire profession to be supplanted. One small tweak, the addition of one of the world's oldest inventions to another of our most basic items (wheel, meet bag), and the people whose job it was to carry your suitcases to your hotel room became obsolete. There are still some hotels that employ porters, though seemingly more for the comfort or kitsch value than anything else.
Travellers cheques Photo: Alamy
You would stress while you were on the road. You would constantly be thinking – where can I exchange the next cheque? Where have I stored all those bits of paper? Where have I written down the serial numbers? Taking money overseas used to mean travellers cheques, these bits of paper that held your entire financial security. No emergency trips to the ATM. No quick check of your internet banking. Instead you had to find banks or other exchange centres that would hand over local cash for your $100 American Express cheque.
PAPER AIR TICKETS
Plane tickets Photo: Alamy
This was another source of stress. The loss of your air ticket represented the loss of your holiday. The loss of your sanity. You'd have to work long and hard to have that thing replaced. This was back when the term "your flight has been ticketed" really meant something: it really had been printed out on a ticket, it had been locked in, never to be altered or replaced. On multi-leg journeys you'd end up with this huge book of tickets, the stubs of which would become souvenirs of great adventures had. Now, they're saved on your email.
Film is gone Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK
You'd have to think so hard about every photo. What's the light like? Is the aperture setting right? Do you have the appropriate film speed? Is this scene even worth capturing, is it worth sacrificing one of the limited number of slides currently wrapped around a spool inside your camera? And that was just the snapping of the shot. Travel photography used to involve the lugging of so many rolls of film, the excitement of having those rolls developed, of being able to flick back through your holiday and reliving it all. You'd put these snaps in an album, give them their due respect, look over them again in months or years and reminisce. Now, of course, film is gone. Replaced by digital, and most commonly by the humble smartphone. Photos are shot daily in their thousands. They're uploaded and liked and commented on and then gone. And you start again.
An old world internet cafe Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK
This is a new phenomenon that has already become obsolete. There was a period of about 10 years where we'd all need to make use of internet cafes while we travelled, we would all call into these places to check our emails on clunky, virus-ridden old terminals. We'd wait patiently as Hotmail took 15 minutes to load. We'd try to send one – just one – photo back to friends and family. These cafes would be hot, sticky places in Nairobi, backpacker-filled joints in London, upmarket parlours in Seoul. They would be on street corners, in hotel foyers, up rickety staircases in dark back alleys. And now they're pretty much all gone.
CHAMOIS TRAVEL TOWELS
These were oddly popular among travellers, particularly those on a budget. They were the sort of thing swimmers used, tiny chamois leather towels that were super absorbent, dried quickly, and packed down small in your suitcase. Their only downsides that I could spot were that they were terrible at getting you dry, and woefully inadequate when it came to preserving your dignity as you walked back from the communal showers.
MOTEL BREAKFAST HATCHES
There are a few old-school motels that still employ this method of meal delivery; however, by and large the breakfast hatch has disappeared. It used to be that you'd check in to an old roadside motel, go to sleep and then wake up with your breakfast – usually a small box of cereal, and toast in a paper bag – being slid through a hatch in the front door. "The hatches are something people are very nostalgic about, because people wouldn't really go out for breakfast then," says Tim Ross. "It was considered a real treat to go out for breakfast. You'd be living it up to get breakfast through the chute."
They're disappearing. If you've stayed in hotels recently, particularly in the US, you might have noticed that the overpriced drinks and snacks have quietly been removed from your room. That's due to a few factors: mini-bars are expensive to stock, they're expensive to maintain, and some guests have a nasty habit of drinking the scotch and replacing it with tea. Now we have to make do with free bottles of water, and trips to the convenience store.
CALCULATORS AND TORCHES
Truly dedicated travellers used to carry a small pocket calculator wherever they went, to perform complex currency calculations. Most people would carry a torch too, just something small in case the power went out at your hotel, or you needed to get something out of your bag without waking everyone in the room. Both those items were rendered superfluous by the smartphone.
Gone: Compact discs Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK
For the longest time, music wasn't portable, unless you carried a guitar. You couldn't take a record-player and your collection of vinyl on the road, so you just went without. And then the cassette arrived. Suddenly you could take a stack of tapes and a Walkman and be "wired for sound" wherever you went. Those tape-players were soon supplanted by CDs and the Discman, meaning travellers would set off to see the world with a big book of CDs stuffed in their packs. And then, just as suddenly as those game-changing devices arrived, they disappeared. Music went digital. Your entire collection – in fact your instant access to every song ever written and recorded – went straight into your pocket.
INTERNATIONAL PHONE CARDS
I remember wrestling with international phone cards. I remembering buying them in London and scratching off the 30-digit PIN on the back. I remember standing in pay phones trying to get the number to work, trying to figure out which one you call first, and when do you put the PIN in, and do you put in the "0011" before the country code, and do you even need the country code, and ... Occasionally, I would actually get to speak to my family before all the credit ran out. Reverse charge calls have become obsolete too, now that everyone has Skype and Whatsapp.
Before there was email, before there were phone cards, before you posted your every move on social media – there was post restante. This was the service provided by post offices around the world that allowed you to have mail sent there and held until you could collect it. You'd be in Munich and have your family send a care package to Paris. You'd be schlepping through northern Thailand, waiting to collect your goodies in Bangkok. There was such a feeling of excitement going to the local post office, and such a sense of disappointment if the package wasn't there.
I have a confession: I'm terrible at folding maps. I can't make sense of why some bits fold one way but seem like they should be folded the other. Part of this is a spatial awareness thing. The other part, however, is lack of practice. I don't fold maps anymore. No one does, because no one uses maps – at least, not big paper ones that require folding.
Once again, the smartphone has changed the game. Google Maps has rendered the tangible versions obsolete. The little blue dot knows all. Travellers can now pinpoint their exact location and map out their perfect journey with a few jabs of a button. And then your phone just goes back in your pocket, with no folding necessary.
The guidebook industry struggles on, though it's a shadow of the colossus it once was. Travellers just don't carry guidebooks anymore. They're too big and bulky. They draw too much attention to you. Plus they're out of date before they're even printed: you're reading advice and information that's already months old. The internet can top that every time.
It's not only guidebooks that have disappeared, but hardcopy books in general. The Kindle has replaced the library – now you have every book you need in a small, digital package. That has also led to the demise of the book exchange, the stack of books in hostels and hotels from which you'd grab your next tome. Now, it's all online.
INFLIGHT MOVIES ON THE BIG SCREEN
Come on, you would think as the screen lit up and the opening scenes began to roll – be something good. And then the film would turn out to be some dull romcom that you watched two flights ago anyway, so you'd go back to your book. This was the process of inflight movies back in the day.
There would be one movie playing at a time. It would begin when it felt like beginning. It would be displayed on one large screen at the head of the cabin. It would be broadcast in a few languages, accessible by pushing the channel button on your armrest. Its title would be a mystery until the movie began, until it was flashed across the screen and you could decide if you wanted to attempt to watch it or not. The modern-day, 1000-shows-available-at-the-touch-of-a-button system seems a little better.
Remember when you used to take chances? When you'd show up at that hotel with no idea what it was really like? When you'd call past a town just to see if it was interesting? When you would eat a meal with no idea of the quality of the cuisine? The very notion of taking a chance has all but disappeared. Now, everything has already been reviewed and rated, presented for your research, catalogued and judged. The hotel is on TripAdvisor. The restaurant is on Yelp. The entire destination has been written about and pontificated on and assessed by tens of thousands of travellers before you. There's no need to take any chances at all. And that's a little sad.
Take a look around any modern-day hostel, and you might be surprised by what you find: suitcases. Lots of suitcases, most with wheels. Some might be hybrid bags that also have straps. But very few will be the traditional backpacks, the large bags meant to take you to every corner of the world.
That is in part because of the ease with which suitcases with wheels can be transported around the developed world. It's also because there are a lot more travellers out there than there used to be, and not everyone is planning to hike through Nepal on their next journey; many just want to wander around Paris. For that, a suitcase with wheels is ideal.
Hitchhiking was never a good idea Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK
This used to be a genuine option for travel. You could take the train, you could opt for the bus, or you could hitch. Go down to the highway, stick your thumb out, and hope for the best. It's sad that the world has changed in such a way as to make this untenable. It's too dangerous to hitch now. It leaves far too much to chance. It does still happen in some countries: in Cuba hitchhiking is commonplace; it's done in Israel; you'll see it occasionally in Ireland and New Zealand. By and large, however, hitching just isn't viable.
Slide nights are, thankfully, over. Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK
I really miss slide nights, said no one ever. One of the benefits of social media, and travellers' chronic urge to overshare every tiny part of their holiday the second it happens, is that there's now no need to gather the neighbours together and walk them, photo by photo, through your latest journey. They've already seen the photos. Everyone has.
You used to be allowed to smoke on planes. It sounds absurd these days. Unbelievable, really. And yet plenty of us have memories of long-haul flights in which half of the plane would wallow under a pall of cigarette smoke, a dank cloud that would hang there the entire time as passengers puffed and coughed. You'd request a non-smoking seat and find yourself one row away from people lighting up. Great.
Think of these as like posting status updates, only out loud, and to just one or two people at a time. Those people then reply to you in kind: vocally, to your face. This was called "having a conversation". It's something travellers used to do all the time, while sitting in hotel lobbies and hostel lounges, while waiting for trains and relaxing in cafes. Now, of course, you can look at your phone or your iPad and scroll through video clips of cats on skateboards, or engage someone you've never actually met in a pointless argument on Twitter. But back before the internet you would have to have a conversation with people in your immediate area.
FIVE THINGS THAT WILL NEVER GO AWAY
This seems like one of those anachronisms that should have disappeared by now. Carting your accommodation around behind you in your car? That's crazy. It's what you used to do when a flight overseas cost the same as a house. And yet, the appeal of caravanning remains evergreen. It's still a wonderful way to get around, slowly and steadily, meeting people and enjoying the scenery. Long may it continue.
Postcards: A dying art Photo: Alamy
When was the last time someone actually wrote on and sent you a postcard? Probably a while ago. The posting of postcards is most certainly a dying art. But the cards themselves? They still exist. They're still sold at overseas attractions. They're still stocked on newsagent racks. There's still a market for these things – as keepsakes, as souvenirs – and there probably always will be.
Everything a travel agent can do, you can do by yourself, on the internet. And yet, there's no substitute for the expertise an agent can bring to your holiday planning, no replacement for the safety net they can provide. It's also convenient to use a travel agent: someone else works out those tricky connections, finds you a hotel, gets everything booked. That's worth paying for.
This is something else you would imagine would have disappeared by now. We have no need for tangible, hard-copy travel brochures. They could be emailed as PDFs. They could exist purely online. And yet, people like brochures. They like flipping through them and looking at the pictures and cutting bits out and dreaming. I can't see them falling out of fashion.
If a diary to you is a book of hand-written entries, then maybe it will disappear – and probably soon. But if a diary is more of a conceptual thing, the act of recording your travels for posterity, of capturing each day with a few thoughts, then diary-keeping is very much alive and well. Have you heard of a travel blog?
FIVE THINGS WE WISH WOULD DISAPPEAR
Near the beautiful lakeside town of Wanaka, in New Zealand, there's a tree that grows out of the water. It's become famous. It's known as "#thatwanakatree". Photographers and Instagram fans travel from near and far to get a photo. It's one of thousands of landmarks around the world that has become Insta-famous, and overrun with tourists all just looking for one photo. And it's not fun.
Some countries don't have immigration forms any more. Fly into many European nations and you won't have a scrap of paper to fill in, not a single thing to write on or sign. It makes you wonder, why doesn't Australia do the same? We all used to waste time filling out departure cards, and now suddenly that's not necessary. How about the arrival ones as well?
Airlines are not happy. Lufthansa is currently suing a passenger for making use of the "hidden cities" loophole, booking a flight to an unpopular, cheap destination and then getting off the plane at the more expensive transit point. Hey airlines – if you're not happy about this sort of thing, then stop gouging passengers on prices.
Travellers, stand back. Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK
Travellers of the world, I beg you: just stand back from the baggage carousel. Just leave a metre or two for everyone to step forward and grab their bag when they spot it coming around. That way everyone can see, and everyone is comfortable. Don't – repeat, don't – obnoxiously ram your trolley right up against the carousel and stand there for 15 minutes taking up all the space.
Is this the final hurdle in the push for a paperless world? Our cash has disappeared. Our plane tickets are gone. Our itineraries have all become digital files. Pretty much the only thing left to carry now is a passport – and with facial recognition technology and the collection of fingerprints everywhere you go, could we eventually see its demise?
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